Saturday, June 28, 2008

It's Ham Field Day!

And I've made my first contact on HF. The good ol Jeff and I checked out the Sunnyvale ARES site, but they were being pretty boring, so we checked out another site down by Rancho, and man were they jumping. They are running 8 radios, plus their satellite and "Get on the Air" radios. When we got there, the wife of one of the guys was nice enough to walk us around and show us all the different stations, which was SO nice of her. It was awkward at the SARES with everyone completely ignoring us. So after seeing the entire installation, Jeff and I were led to the GOTA radio, where they let us unlicensed/Technician license shmucks have a go at the HF bands, normally only open to General and Extra Plus licensees. Jeff got three contacts: British Columbia, Arizona, and somewhere else. By the time I was getting on, we were running short on time because I needed to get back to work picking up real estate signs, but I managed to get one contact in Illinois, which is REALLY cool. I'm about to have dinner, then Jeff and I are going to head out again to check them out while they're working the 80/160 meter bands, which only open up once the sun sets. Update: So we headed back up to Mora hill around 10pm, and after a few hours chewing the fat with the guys, two of the operators turned to us and said they wanted to take a break. So Jeff and I got to work the 40m band from midnight till about 1:30am when they switched down to 80m and took over again. It was quite a bit of fun, and we even managed to get QSLs with a guy in Alaska, and another in Hawaii.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

First Long Range Radio Work in Rancho San Antonio

This afternoon Jeff and I hiked to the top of Rancho San Antonio, and brought our hand held radios and a repeater book. From this hill in Los Altos, we just started to try and hit repeaters throughout the Valley. Overall, we did pretty good.

We hit all the Sunnyvale / Los Altos / other local repeaters no problem. We managed to hit Berkeley, which is pretty cool. But then we started thinking bigger. We started dialing up repeaters in Napa! By god, we managed to hit one. There was even someone on it to talk to us. They were in the middle of a rag chew in Napa, so we didn't get to talk to them or trade call signs, but just getting a signal strength from him was pretty cool. That's a good 60-70 miles straight shot.

We tried farther and farther repeaters until we just couldn't get anything more. In some directions, we were loosing our subadible tone, which tells the repeater to transmit, so we could be understood, but the repeater intermittently dropped us for not having the subtone. With other repeaters we were able to key them up fine, but couldn't get a legible signal through to save our lives. We managed to key up a repeater near Clear Lake; a good 120 miles away. With one of us talking, the other could definitely tell that the repeater was picking up, but all we could hear was static.

That is why I'm studying Morse code. With Morse code, just being able to tell that a signal is there is all you need to communicate. Overall it was a very fun afternoon, with some excercise, and I completely lost track of time and missed dinner.

Note: Keep in mind that we were doing all of this with manufacturers rubber duckies, so we weren't using any special antennas or anything. At some point this summer, I'm likely going to build a J pole antenna and we can see what I can get out of that.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Troubleshooting My Car

So last night I was out driving, and plugged in my radio's car charger. Unfortunately, the 12V cigarette lighter plug was dead, so no charger for the radio. Once I met up with Jeff Glass, we figured it was a fuse problem and read through the user manual.

Turns out my Malibu has two fuse boxes. One in the fold of the driver's door, and another in the hood. Pictures of both:

According to the user's manual, the fuse for the accessory plug / cigarette lighter is the small yellow 20 amp fuse on the bottom right of the hood fuse box, just to the left of the top of the large orange fuse in the picture. So, in theory, this should be a real easy fix. Pop out the old fuse, put in a new one, and away I go.

One problem: There is no spare fuses in the fuse cover like there should be.

Well shucks. SOL. Thus, I had to wait until this morning to fix the car at home. Luckily, Dad has an almost complete set of fuses in his shop, so I was able to replace it. I got the old one out though:

Drop the new one in, and... fsssssh *POP*. The new fuse blows right away. Bad news. Before, it was just a blown fuse, which is a freak event. Another fuse blows right away, and there is a short circuit somewhere in the wiring. That means somewhere between the fuse box and the 12V plug, there is a short between the positive and negative in the wiring. I didn't want to trace all that wire. Not in a new American car without a car lift.
Original fuse on left, instantly blown fuse on right. Note blackening from the arc.

This is when the calm, cool, collected mind of the engineer solving a problem is taken over by the less logical, instinctual, sometimes outright chaotic mind of an engineer presented with a problem he doesn't understand. Out of nowhere, I decided to try again, but with the actual cigarette lighter coil removed from the jack. Drop in the new fuse, and it holds. I plug in the radio charger, and it works! Problem solved! The cigarette lighter itself was defective and lacks the resistance needed to heat up without blowing its fuse. It was what was shorting out the wiring.

Now I just need to go to the auto parts store and buy a 12V jack rubber boot cover to replace the lighter, and a complete set of fuses to stock my car with so I can save myself out in the middle of ass-backwards nowhere.

Friday, June 20, 2008

No Name LCD

So as part of my shopping trip at Halted, I bought a Liquid Crystal Display. It's a 2x16 alpha-numeric display that I'm planning on hooking up to my Arduino (once it comes). Here is a good tutorial on hooking up LCDs to PICs, which will be helpful.

So step one is to try and figure out what I've got. I googled for every number on that PCB, and this is some cheap, old, no-name LCD.

The markings on the board are:


RU(R) E91964

Since there was no data sheets for the whole unit to be found, I needed another way to figure out the pin out on the board. Next step was to look at the two ICs on the back.

First chip:
7A2 U

Second chip:

Luckily, starting with the HD chip was a good call. Turns out this is a very popular LCD controller. It's a very OLD LCD controller, but it's still pretty popular. Here is a data sheet for the HD44780 series.

So on page 4, they show the pinout for the FP-80B package, and it was only a matter of following the traces on the PCB from the chip out to the edge of the board. That took care of the DB0-DB7 lines, the E, RW, and RS lines, and finally Vcc and GND. The Vcc and GND was a little more challenging because it went onto the front of the board, but luckily never slipped under the LCD itself, so I was still able to follow it.

FYI: It looks like the LC7930 is the LCD driver chip, where the HD44780 is the controller that handles the interface between the driver and the host device.

So finally, the contacts on the PCB are numbered from 1 to 14:
  1. GND
  2. Vcc
  3. Contrast - tie to ground with resistor
  4. RS
  5. RW
  6. E
  7. DB0
  8. DB1
  9. DB2
  10. DB3
  11. DB4
  12. DB5
  13. DB6
  14. DB7
So after all the tracing, the only pin left was #3, which I am guessing is the contrast control. To adjust this, I'll either hook it up to the center tap of a variable resistor between Vcc and GND, or just hook it up to a PWM pin on the Arduino.

DISCLAIMER: I don't have my Arduino yet, and have yet to test this pin out. If I happen to be wrong, and you toast your LCD, I'm sorry, but you can't hold me responsible. Use at your own risk, these are only a good guess.

Update: I've gotten my Arduino, hooked it up, and was correct on all pins. I got good results on the contrast pin by only grounding it with a 360 ohm resistor. By default it only displays one line, but Jeff Glass and I have been working on all of the commands to get it to do more.

Multicolored LEDs

So as part of my shopping adventure at Halted Wednesday, I picked up some multicolored LEDs.

Normal LEDs are pretty ubiquitous. They're in pretty much every computer, and are all the blinking lights you see on network switches and routers. Multicolored ones are pretty much the same, but have more than two wires coming out of them so you can make more than one color.

So as you can see, the one on the left is a red/green LED. You run current from one side pin to the center one and get red, and from the other side pin to the center and get green. I got four of them, each at 5 cents a piece (a freakin steal!).

The LED on the right is a red/green/blue LED. The longest pin, 2nd from right, is the ground, then each other pin is connected to a different color. It's pretty easy to tell which pin is ground because A) it's the longest, and B) the ground pin is connected to the largest piece of metal inside the plastic dome.

So the really neat thing about these LEDs, although more so with the RBG LED, is that you can get more than just the three colors given. You can start mixing the colors in ratios and get anything from white to purple to orange. This effect has become quite popular lately, my mouse shifts colors, I've see garden lamps do it, as well as frisbees, so now you know what they use to get all the different colors. One little LED.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bought Electronics at Halted

Yesterday the Jeff Master and I loaded up and headed off for the complete opposite side of town to go "MAN SHOPPING," which includes going to Fry's Electronics (and buying nothing), Halted Electronics, and the Ham Radio Outlet. All three of which are surprising close to each other.

Halted isn't a normal electronics store, like Radio Shack or Fry's, it's what we solderers lovingly refer to as a salvage store. They have bin after bin of resistors, and capacitors, and every other passive component you can think of, not to mention the piles of out-moded server equipment for sale stacked on top of all of the isles. When you walk it, you get a price sheet, on which you write down how much everything costs, because they don't know how much anything is, it's all just so random.

The bad news was that Halted is having a moving sale this month, which means they're moving, but probably not anywhere closer into the heart of Sunnyvale. DAMN!
The good news is that it means everything was on sale so I got everything at least 30% off!

I got:
And the grant total... $11.27! Man I love that place. To go shopping in one store, actively picking out components for an hour, with days worth of fun playing with them at home, and it all comes up to $11.27. Jeff ended up only getting two ground floaters, but the two of them ended up costing him $1.29, so he made a killing as well.

It's just too bad they're moving. Halted: we'll miss you!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


This morning I got online and the FCC had issued my new Ham license call sign.

This all started at Christmas when Dad gave me the study guide for the first level license test, and told me that if I got my license by my birthday, he would get me a radio. I spent 6 months studying the book when I had free time and on Saturday went down to De Anza park and took the test. 35 multiple choice questions, I had to get 26 correct to pass. Needless to say, I passed. So they submitted the paperwork and the FCC issued the license on the next business day!

So now that I have the license, I can transmit at high power on a wide range of frequencies, although the most valuable is the 2 meter band (144MHz). All in all, this will be a neat experience to be able to play with high power radio equipment.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Tip of the Day - Start at Good Will

Kristina and I were at Good Will on Friday looking for a container for our latest project, and happened upon three of the exact glasses that our dad likes so much for Orange juice. Over the years he has happened to break a few of them, so for Father's Day today we completed his set.

Good Will and other thrift stores are a great place to start to find gifts. Just make sure you don't just buy them junk and actually find something good like these glasses.

Summer Job for Intero Real Estate

This weekend marked the first weekend of my new part time job for Intero Real Estate. It's a pretty simple job. I load a dozen fold-up signs into my car, drive around town and set up the signs on street corners following a map they gave me. Then come back 3 hours later and take all the signs down again. The best part is that I'm getting paid $12 an hour to do it. It looks to take me about an hour out and an hour in again, so 4 hours in a normal weekend: $48. Not bad; It'll get me through the week with my friends.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

CalTrain Intership for Next Summer?

So for some reason, tonight I decided to seriously look into getting some kind of employment at the local CalTrain maintenance yard. It's a little late for this summer, and I'm already planning on going to De Anza, so I'm thinking a year from now. At this point I don't know if they would even consider giving me an internship, but it wouldn't hurt more than a little asking (I'm seeing an angry email, much loved by the railroading crowd, in return; personally attacking me, which would be painful).

As per their jobs page, they are looking for some full time engineers. I'm obviously not what they're looking for, but it would be good reasoning for an internship, returning later. My other approach is that I really want to be working as a bottom of the line mechanic. I want to be crawling around in locomotives every day, getting dirty, and learning as much as I can about industrial field work. Think of it as doing the same thing I do at the WPRM, except every day, a much better commute (including riding CalTrain from Sunnyvale to San Jose), and I get paid for it.

They always say to do what you love for your career. And seeing as how working on trains decided my major, it would make sense to eventually get back to them.

Friday, June 6, 2008

No More Bonds

I voted in the local primary last week. Like all good college students, I did so by absentee ballot, and most of the measures / seats went my way, except for those for bonds...

Bond measures for a fund to help improve the technology at the local high schools. I went to one of those high schools, and I agree with the sentiment. Fremont is in the middle of Sunnyvale, which is in the epicenter of the Silicon Valley. These high schools need to do everything they can to stay on the edge of the technology frontier.

Bonds just aren't the way to do it. Bonds don't raise any money. They are a net negative proposition for the government. They just offload this shortage of money to the next generation of politicians, which makes them so popular. I believe the government should be consistently running a surplus to ensure that there is a fund to allow for these kinds of high priority projects. Bonds don't generate revenue, taxes do. Ask the voters to raise taxes, and I'll vote for it. Granted, no one else will, but at least I will.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Western Pacific Tour Guide

My dad has been tossing around this idea as long as I can remember, and I think I've just about gotten to the point where I will start working on it. Here's my initial outline for a tour book for the WPRM:
  1. Welcome to the Museum - perhaps written by the President
  2. Intro to safety on museum grounds - the WPRM is a real live operating museum
  3. History of the WP
  4. History of the WP and connecting railroads/ subsidiaries - KCC, Sacramento Northern, CCT, etc
  5. History of the WPRM
  6. Urge guests to either become a member of the FRRS or take advantage of our Rent a Locomotive program
  7. Complete WP diesel locomotive roster - list of all models, road numbers, and pages for examples of each model
  8. A ~1 page profile on each of at least the locomotives on property. This would be very similar to the roster already put together on the website.
  9. Places to eat in and around Portola
  10. Other places to go/ see in and around Portola
I'm still in the brainstorming phase, so if there's anything else you would think should be in a tour book for a railroad museum, let me know.

My Free Samples are Coming

So I've been looking around for projects to use the I2C interface on an Arduino, and requested a few ICs from some chip makers. Half to my surprise, what they say about getting free samples is true.
  • I ordered a AT24C256B and AT24C1024B from Atmel. These are EEPROMs, which allow me to store data between power cycles. The Arduino comes with 512 bytes of EEPROM, but you never know when another 32k + 125k might come in handy. I haven't heard anything from them, but assume the samples have shipped and may already have arrived in Sunnyvale.
  • I ordered a DS1721 thermometer/thermostat from Maxim. Of all the ICs I've order, this one is probably the one I'm most excited about. Not only can you read the temperature off the IC, you can also set a high and low temperature. This would be useful if you wanted to use it to monitor the temperature in a case and control a cooling fan. You could set it to latch on at 60 degrees and turn off at 45 degrees. Maxim emailed me the next morning and said it had shipped.
  • Lastly I ordered a PCA9555DWR digital I/O breakout from TI. This chip will be useful if I ever decide to run more than 14 LEDs or switches. The chip pretty much just adds 16 I/O pins to run anything off of that you would normally run directly off the Arduino. One nice thing about this chip is that it has pull-up resistors built into the IC, so running switched or buttons on it will be trivial (This is because a floating I/O pin will give erratic readings if it isn't pulled to high or low).
Now I just need to buy my Arduino and get working on a temperature logger. I'll have enough ROM to record the temperature every 5 minutes for more than 18 months.